Hello all! It’s been a busy week – full of sunshine and train journeys and thesis-writing. I’ve been down to Brighton for the latest CWW Skills Development Workshop, and yesterday went to a Medical Humanities day at Bristol University, designed to develop a regional network of academics (in the South-West) who work in the medical humanities. Both events were interesting and productive, and I got a chance to wax lyrical in a semi-informal context on pregnancy in women’s writing, which is what my thesis is all about. It’s always nice to have a captive audience!
The theme of the CWWN workshop this time was ‘Public Engagement’, and speakers included the very lovely Professor Clare Hanson, who discussed her latest collaborations with scientists. Clare currently works on epigenetics, which – If I’ve understood it correctly – both investigates and interrogates those narratives of genetic inheritance with which we are all familiar. It turns out that we are not necessarily as captive to our genes as we have been led to believe; most genes are fairly inert and need to be activated. The idea that we may somehow turn into our mothers and grandmothers sometimes is an anxious one – particularly if we happen to look like them – but actually, we are ourselves. We are not our parents. I find this quite liberating; in fact, I have recently been exploring this anxiety through my poetry, because I am a child of flawed grandparents. Well, all human beings are flawed – parents, grandparents and children alike – but my grandmother is a source of anxiety for me. You see (and I’m sharing the dirt here) I haven’t spoken to her in twenty years. One member of her family sexually abused another one, and instead of protecting the abused, she shielded the abuser. Of course this is all alleged; it was never taken to court. But I know the truth. She was unable to remove herself from a situation that put her own family at risk, and not because she didn’t have the opportunity. It was because (from my perspective, at least) she was weak and her priorities became skewed.
I don’t know what she’s doing now, or even where she lives. And I certainly won’t be naming her here. But a few years ago I did bump into her sister, at the gym. Aunty – who hadn’t seen me since I was eight years old either – asked if it was me, and then said ‘You look like your grandmother’. What do you say to that, when a relative you don’t know anymore tells you with absolute certainty and even approbation, that you look like your flawed grandmother? I think I was a bit shocked at the time. I wish I’d called her out and said something like ‘Perhaps I do look like her, but that doesn’t mean anything. I’m far stronger than she is. Her choices were wrong. Do you know about epigenetics?’
Survivors of sexual abuse are speaking back. There are countless websites and blogs written by survivors, and poetry and other vehicles of self-expression really seem to help deal with the numerous issues and conflicts that arise when this subject is aired. Examples include This Tangled Web and support can be found at The Survivors Trust, the NAPAC and Rape Crisis. I also discovered this site called End the Silence, that contains poetry and artwork on this theme. It’s a little out of date now – It doesn’t seem to have been active since 2011 – but there are some excellent and moving pieces up there. I daresay there are plenty of writing groups and charities that I have missed, so if any readers would like to recommend some, I’m happy to include some further links too.
I try to forgive my grandmother; forgiveness is important. But it’s also important to articulate anxiety and anger too, particularly with regards to topics that have often been unspeakable. There’s an excellent book about sexual abuse called Breaking Free: Help for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I hope my grandmother reads it one day, but accept that she probably never will.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to write about my own experiences and anxieties. The latest poem on this is currently in a submissions pile somewhere, so if it gets published, I’ll let you know. I already have a poem – which isn’t about this but is about a furious female writing back to a man – forthcoming in Furies, whose profits will go to Rape Crisis. I’ll keep you updated on that too; at the moment there are contracts and publicity plans winging back and forth via email, which is very exciting. I feel like this has been a quite depressing post; it doesn’t mean to be. It means to be hopeful and helpful, at least to some extent. My next post will be a bit more lighthearted, I promise. And with that, I’m off into the sunshine, to tackle that pile of undergraduate essays that wants marking…